Poems from Guantanamo

"Will Ya Ever Go Jihad Again?"

The book "Poems from Guantanamo" is a phenomenon: out of thousands of poems written by the detainees, 22 made it past the US censors. Now it's clear that the Islamists have also arrived on the Modernist poetry scene. By Stefan Weidner

​​As much the USA sometimes vexes us, it's still probably the only nation that would give its archenemies official permission to publish poems from prison camp.

Admittedly, the authorities did not give their approval readily, and they imposed some rigid restrictions. Of several thousand poems written in Guantanamo, only 22 passed the security regulations, i.e. the censors. But what is written here is certainly explosive enough.

Anger, longing for home, despair, encouragement, comfort, oaths of vengeance, appeals to God, but also realistic themes such as coming to terms with interrogation situations by means of poetry, make this slim volume a weighty document. That the prisoners have chosen to put their thoughts into poetic form is actually no wonder, though.

Hellish holidays

Almost all of the countries they come from still have oral literary traditions, for example Pakistan and Afghanistan, and poetry enjoys a degree of popularity among Arabs that is unknown in European climes. It might be a diary or a political manifesto, a medium for invective or for adulation; it can be a confessional or a judge's bench.

Deprived of all other forms of communication, even letter writing, and often in solitary confinement, many of the prisoners have been reduced to the old Oriental cultural technique of poetry to express their anguish.

The first poems in Guantanamo circulated among the inmates orally or were scratched into the foam tableware.

One of these short, so-called "cup poems" goes like this: "Handcuffs befit brave young men, Bangles are for spinsters or pretty young ladies."

Later, the detainees were given writing materials, but the texts they wrote were usually taken away from them to be monitored, and are today stored in a maximum security prison somewhere in Virginia.

Capturing the heart of the public

It was a group of American lawyers from the "Center for Constitutional Rights" that first found out about the poems in the course of their efforts to secure basic rights for the Guantanamo detainees and tried to obtain access to the texts. The hurdles they had to overcome seem paranoid – for example, the texts had to be examined for hidden messages and instructions for Al Qaida.

Guantanamo inmate (photo: AP)
The emotional universe of the prisoners is the main focus in the "Poems from Guantanamo", while the inmates rarely draw on the traditional topoi of Oriental-Islamic poetry

​​For this reason, the foreign-language poems were made available to the lawyers and publishers only as English translations by official government interpreters in Virginia and Guantanamo, who had to work rapidly and without adequate dictionaries.

The poems exhibit surprising qualities, most of them written in a straightforward, contemporary style. The emotional universe of the prisoners is at the forefront, with recourse only rarely taken to traditional topoi of Oriental-Islamic poetry.

If the goal of Guantanamo was to break the prisoners' spirit, the camp seems to have failed miserably. In view of the numerous films and books about Guantanamo, we have to agree for better or worse with the Pakistani Ustad Badruzzaman Badr when he says that "We live in the stories now,/we live in the epics/we live in the public's heart."

They talk, they argue, they kill...

Militarily senseless, Guantanamo is increasingly proving to be a public relations debacle for the USA. "Peace, they say", writes Shaker Abdurraheem Aamer from Saudi Arabia, "Peace of mind?/Peace on earth?/Peace of what kind? ... They talk, they argue, they kill: / They fight for peace." Bertolt Brecht couldn't have put it better or more succinctly.

After reading this volume it is at any rate clear that even the Islamists have now embraced Modernist poetry. The only poem printed in its original language is an MTV-ready rap by UK-based Martin Mubanga from Zambia that takes a frank look at the interrogations:

"Now them ask me, what will ya do if ya leave the prison? / Will ya be able to slip back into d'system? / What ya gonna do with ya new-found fame? / An' will ya ever, ever go jihad again?"

It's encouraging to note that the restrictions imposed on the selections published here were evidently indeed prompted by security concerns; from the perspective of propaganda, none of these poems should have been allowed to be made public. The public relations disaster that is Guantanamo is made complete by the short biographies of the poetry-writing inmates provided in the book.

Although these life stories have been written from the point of view of the lawyers, none of the detainees allowed to have a say here has been conclusively proven to have any connections to Al Qaida. And it's easy to believe, as is often claimed in the biographies, that the Pakistani authorities have been happy to occasionally hand over the wrong man in return for a generous bounty.

The obvious injustices being practiced at Guantanamo have the effect of undermining Western morals, not those of the Islamists. By letting the inmates express themselves in this book, the American attorneys working with publisher Marc Falkoff are not only interested in procuring justice for them, but also in seeking our own salvation.

This book is a phenomenon – not only because even a place like Guantanamo has given birth to poetry, but because we have no choice but to be interested in these poems if we do not wish to give our tacit approval to the break with civilised morality that such a camp represents.

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2009

Marc Falkoff (ed.): "Poems from Guantánamo. The Detainees speak", University of Iowa Press, Iowa City 2007. 72 pages, 11.50 euros. Afterword by Ariel Dorfman.

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